Yosemite Winter Photography Workshop | February 22-23rd, 2014

Yosemite Winter 2-Day Photography Workshop - February 22-23rd, 2014

Yosemite Photography Workshop Students

Winter has spared California the wrath it has brought much of the United States. This means mild temperatures and spring like conditions for much of California. For our Yosemite “winter” workshop, this also means there won't be any snow on the valley floor to speak of…BUT this doesn't mean that Yosemite doesn't still offer some amazing things to photograph! A group of 12 eager students met Aperture Academy pro team instructors Scott Donschikowski and Brian Rueb for a weekend of fun, photography, and education in Ansel Adams playground.

Friday night we conduct an orientation to get to know the class more and find out more of what they want to work on over the weekend. Everyone has different experience levels and it's nice to have that in the back of our minds as we work with them during our two days in the valley.

Saturday Morning comes early, and under the veil of darkness our sleep photographers travel by ApCab (our giant blue mystery machine of photography) to our first destination. We stop along the Merced River where views of El Capitan, The Three Brothers, and various other towering granite peaks layout before our lenses. Scott and I make sure we go over the ‘basics' for everyone (Aperture, Shutter Speed, filter use, and ISO) before turning them loose to begin working on compositions. While everyone has spread out we will walk the river and help fine tune those compositions as well as check for understanding with the camera settings.

There were no clouds in the sky, but the peaceful reflections and mammoth peaks always make for interesting subject matter. I pointed out to several people some of the smaller details in the area, like muted colored leafs rimmed by frost that made for great detail shots. We spent about an hour along the river before setting off to our second stop of the day, Swinging Bridge.

Swinging Bridge has great reflections of Upper Yosemite Falls, and is quite an iconic destination for photographers. We line up along the waters edge and the class got some really nice shots of the warm granite walls with the deep blue sky…all reflected pristinely in the gently flowing Merced. We covered the continued use of polarizing filters here to really maximize the blueness of the sky, and the reflections. In add to the sweeping grand vistas, there were lots of nice subtle details in the foliage of the area that made for some nice abstractions. Composition is always a tough concept to teach so Scott and I like to take some quick snaps to give people visual ideas of how to convey the many options in the scene.

Once the second location was in the bag, it was time for some much needed breakfast and coffee! It's fun to take these short breaks, not only to warm up…but to get to know the class a little better, and swap photography tales.

After breakfast we went back to the hotel for people to grab a short nap, charge batteries, and prepare for a long afternoon in the park.

After our break we spent a chunk of time along the boardwalks on South Side drive using them a leading lines, to bring viewers into the frame, due to the nice tones in the granite, and boardwalk we urged students to consider using monochrome to shoot, and with the wispy white clouds that had blown in during our siesta, it made for some really nice photography. In addition to the boardwalks we spent more time along the Merced shooting reflections of Yosemite Falls as well as some of the nice little details of leaves floating in pools that made for some nice textural images.

Photographing the iconic little red chapel near Cooks Meadow turned out to yield one of the best surprises of the trip. It was nearing time to depart and a couple of our students happened across the resident bobcat. It was truly amazing spending a good half hour with this timid, and wonderful cat. Everyone got some nice images of this little critter in some pretty nice evening light.

Our final stop of the night was set to be the iconic vantage from Valley View, but a severe lack of clouds left us with the option of trying our luck at the even more popular “Horsetail Falls” image. This is the like a big football game in that everyone tailgates, and shows up far in advance of the actual show. We were lucky that we were able to arrive with only a 20-30 minute wait for show time and still get great spots along the river to capture this phenomenon. Scott and I helped everyone get dialed in with the right settings, and offered a few tips on what are very limited compositional possibilities.

The show was quite nice, and everyone came away with some really good ‘Lava' like shots of the last rays of the sun on the falls. Water levels were not ultra high, but everything else was spot on and it was quite beautiful to witness.


We awoke early again and made our way to Lower Yosemite Falls to take full advantage of the morning light and the time with the falls in the shade that would allow us to work on the really long exposures of the water. On our way to the falls we noticed some very nice low fog in the Cook Meadow area, and had to stop and take advantage. The class was able to get some nice images using the old oak tree, fog, and undulating shapes in the foliage as foreground. The sky wasn't any thing spectacular, but again we encouraged the students to think in terms of monochrome and not in color. In monochrome, white areas are merely tones in a grey scale, where as in a color area flat white skies are far more noticeable.

The morning fog dissipated some and we took the lull in action to head over to the lower falls to continue what we had originally planned. The group split up and made the most of a small window of shade to get some longer exposures and make the falls appear silky smooth. We helped the class get the aperture and shutter speed dialed in and suggested lower compositional ideas to incorporate the rocks and creek in the shot as well.

One of the other natural joys of this spot is that as the winter sun hits the granite it reflects off and causes a warm glow in the falls and makes wonderful dancing rainbows in the mist. We have the class switch to larger lenses and really crank up the shutter speed (which usually requires an increase in ISO) and then switch from movement in the water to freezing the action and getting all the little minute detail.

This was fun, and man did the class ever burn through a lot of shots! Waterfall paparazzi!

After this we took a breakfast break and set off for our hotel to let people check out, and prepare for our afternoon processing session. Scott went over a few techniques to really pull out the most of the dynamic range in images; the class was very interested in these newer techniques. When Scott finished his presentation the two of us helped critique some images and offer some processing help with Photoshop and Lightroom. This is always one of my favorite parts of a class…seeing what the students have shot. How they have progressed, changed our ideas to fit their ideas, and in some cases just come up with truly awesome original compositions.

After processing it was back to the park for a few more stops. We hit the iconic Tunnel View, which sits in nice even light during this time of day and prevents us from having too many tricky shadow areas. Our second stop was a great view of Half Dome along the Merced River. Not a typical stop of most groups, this little bend in the river also offered up another really cool wildlife experience as we got to watch a herd of 8 bucks and 1 doe swim across the river, while golden evening light provided a rich colorful back drop. Very cool indeed…and not to mention everyone also got some really nice reflections of Half-Dome!

Sunset we spent at Valley View. We nailed the Horsetail Falls image the previous night so it was prime time to take a crack at a second icon. Most of the class was getting pretty set with the use of their graduated filters, polarizers, and how to make them blend in with the proper camera settings. Scott and I checked to make sure the class was happy with their compositions, and the sunset take over. While only a few clouds lingered along the horizon, the warm red glow on El Cap' was enough to make everyone happy and turned out some quite lovely imagery.

It's always sad to see such a fun group have to go. We always want to stick out with the group for a few more days and wait for a truly epic light show…but everyone saw some awesome wildlife, nice light, and learned a few things along the way!

Until Next Time,

Brian, Scott and the rest of our Aperture Academy Team!

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